Trust, Accountability, and Integrity at Southwest
"Next to safety, which is first and foremost in our business and has to be the top priority for everybody, I would say that trust is the number two priority," Barrett says. "I might surprise you with this answer, but because we approach customer service exactly the same way—whether it's internal or external—I place the same degree of importance on the word trust whether I'm talking about employees or passengers." And at Southwest, the external customer isn't necessarily always right. Barrett explains:
It's all very logical to me, but I think it's sometimes a surprise with some other customer service–driven companies that will say the customer is always right. We don't subscribe to that. And we have said that publicly, too, which has caused me a letter or two! But that is one of the ways that we earn the trust of our employees. I'm not saying that if the employee makes a mistake, and it's a serious enough mistake, that they won't be disciplined or talked to. But I am saying that if the customer was wrong, and if the customer behavior was bad, then I am going to defend and support the employee. We haven't done this often, but we have, on occasion, told a customer that we don't want him or her back on our airline.
So by naming trust a top priority within the organization—and by backing it up—Southwest shows its employees how much they are valued. As Barrett says, if the airline values and respects its employees, they are going to turn around and do the same for their passengers. They'll stand up for their company, just as they know their company will stand up for them. Trust begets trust.
And when it comes to accountability, it's not surprising to hear that the word has been used at Southwest for many years—long before the concept made the media spotlight.
Accountability has been a featured topic of Herb Kelleher's annual "state of the airline" address to the field. And Barrett herself is continuously engaging employees in discussion on the subject. "To me, accountability is taking responsibility for your own actions—you have to grade yourself." She then takes it a step further, noting, "Once you've done that, as a Southwest employee, you are then empowered to hold others accountable for their actions. But you can't do it if you're not doing it with yourself first." And when asked about integrity and what it means to the people of Southwest, Barrett replies,
One of the things that we talk about and have for thirty years at Southwest is the Golden Rule. I guess because of my background and the way I was raised, to me the Golden Rule taught me ethics and gave me integrity. If you were to walk up to employees at Southwest and ask them if integrity is important, I think their answer would be yes. I think if you asked them to define it, they might say to you that it is practicing the Golden Rule… it means doing the right thing.
Barrett feels the best way to strengthen integrity among her employees is to trust them to make the right decision on their own:
I don't like it when [employees] say, "Well, what should I do?" I don't want to give them the answer. I say, "Well, what do you think is the right thing to do?" And that can frustrate the hell out of people, but it gets them to really think. And in most cases, when the employee knows that you really mean it—you know, it's not a trick question—I think that brings out the integrity in people. Caring enough to really agonize over a decision. When all is said and done, I want the decision to be made in terms of what is best for Southwest Airlines as a whole, not what is best for me as an individual, what is best for my department, whatever the case may be. Am I doing the right thing with this set of circumstances I've got in front of me? If I am, then I'm using integrity in getting there.